25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years – Rolling Stone
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25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

From Martin Scorsese’s graciousness to “Shame on you, Mr. Bush!,” here are the most memorable Academy Awards acceptances of the past quarter century.

When you recall the great (or truly grating) moments in Oscar speechifying, you might think back to Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather to collect his statuette after winning for The Godfather. Perhaps you might wistfully recall Sally Field screaming “You like me! Right now! You like me!” after winning Best Actress for Places in the Heart. Or maybe your mind immediately drifts to that cringeworthy, car-wreck of an acceptance speech when Vanessa Redgrave stumped for the PLO as she picked up her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Julia.

But chances are good that when you remember the good, the bad and the ugly of Academy Awards gratitude, your brain immediately bounces to the bounty of unforgettable Oscar-speech moments of the past 25-plus years. There have been a lot of memorable moments up on that podium over the last quarter century. Here are 25 of our favorites.—David Fear

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

25. Gerda Weissman Klein, Best Documentary Short (1996)

Going up to collect the Oscar for the Best Documentary Short “One Survivor Remembers,” director Kary Antholis thanks the short’s subject, the Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein. When Klein herself steps up to the microphone, however, you suddenly feel a much more profound sense of gratitude emanating from the stage. “Thank you for honoring their memory,” she said, referring to the family, friends and millions of innocents who did not survive. “Each of you who know the joy of freedom, [you] are winners.” This is not a victory lap for Klein. It is a reminder to never forget. 

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

24. Bruce Springsteen, Best Original Song (1993)

“This my first song I ever wrote for a motion picture, so I guess it’s all downhill here from here!” joked the platinum-album-selling artist (and possibly the only person cool enough to pull off not wearing a tie to the Oscars). The Jersey native cracked wise and communicated genuine humility when he picked up the award for “Streets of Philadelphia,” his contribution to the sound track for Jonathan Demme’s AIDS drama Philadelphia. It’s charming to see a guy who you’re used to seeing dominate concert stages come off like a nervous 10-year-old without losing his sense of integrity. The only thing that would have made this better is if Clarence Clemons would have blown a sax solo behind him.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

23. George Clooney. Best Supporting Actor (2005)

Our generation’s Cary Grant was up for two awards this year: Best Director for Good Night and Good Luck, and Best Supporting Actor for Syriana. When it was announced that Ol’ Handsome-Mug had won the latter early on in the evening, Clooney joked “All right, so I’m not winning Director…” After goofing on being voted 1997’s Sexiest Man Alive and playing Batman, the star proudly pledged allegiance to Hollywood’s progressive community, noting that it was such “out of touch” folks who gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar and discussed AIDS when the subject was still taboo. “I’m proud to be out of touch,” he exclaimed. Well played, Clooney. Well played.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

22. Anna Paquin, Best Supporting Actress (1993)

The 11-year-old Paquin was not the youngest performer to ever win an Oscar; that would be Tatum O’Neal, scoring a Best Supporting Actress win for Paper Moon at the tender age of ten. But the Canadian-born, New Zealand-bred kid was certainly one of the giddiest youngsters to ever grace the Dorothy Chandler’s Pavilion’s stage, and those who weren’t won over by her spangly purple hat were reduced to putty as Paquin practically hyperventilated at the podium before saying a word. This is what adorable looks like. 

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

21. Julia Roberts, Best Actress (2000)

The Academy Awards have a long history of shooing megafamous movie stars off the stage before they’ve finished thanking their agents, their parents and God; they don’t care if you’re last film made $60 billion, they have to keep the show moving along! Julia Roberts was having none of it. “I’m going to spend some time here to tell you some things,” the Erin Brockovich actress said, before telling the orchestra leader to put down his stick and sit. (Apparently, the take-no-shit attitude of that titular role rubbed off.) Roberts then spent her sweet time namechecking everybody she damn well pleased, punctuating it with a loud cackle that came close to approaching Howard Dean-like hysteria. Anyone who even contemplated playing her off was scared into silence by that maniacal laugh. 

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

20. Robert Altman, Honorary Award (2006)

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride: The venerable director of Nashville was nominated five times for Best Director, yet somehow never managed to win. [Cue many film fanatics screaming into the abyss] Thankfully, the Academy saw fit to give the 81-year-old filmmaker an honorary award, and after a long and lovely standing ovation, one of Hollywood’s resident wild cards made a confession: Ten years ago, Altman had undergone a heart transplant. “I think I’ve got about another forty years on it,” he joked. Less than ten months later, the director would be gone.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

19. Heath Ledger, Best Supporting Actor (2008)

With his smeared make-up, Groucho Marx-like waddle and lip-licking sense of reveling in his own psychosis, Ledger’s version of the Joker lends The Dark Knight an anarchic edge; he’s the real reason this is considered the seminal Batman movie. The Best Supporting Actor category has long been friendly to risky, out-there performances, so it was not surprising that Ledger was nominated, or that he’d end up winning. What made the victory so poignant was that Ledger was not around to see it—the 28-year-old had passed away from an accidental overdose a month prior to the ceremony. Watching his family accept the award on his behalf, it was impossible not to feel their pride and their pain in accepting the posthumous award—or to be reminded that Ledger was a true talent who was taken from us way too soon.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

18. Roger Ross Williams and Elinor Burkett, Best Documentary Short Subject (2010)

The difference between being a producer and an ex-producer on a film (even a short one) is fairly huge, especially when it comes to little things like, say, being invited to come up on stage when said project wins an Oscar. But Elinor Burkett was not going to let a little thing like legal disputes and no longer being associated with the winning documentary short “Music For Prudence” keep her from getting her moment in the spotlight. Director Roger Ross Williams had just started his speech when Burkett inserted herself between him and the microphone, launching into her own thanks. Folks at home were left wondering why there seemed to be a verbal tug of war going on; once the backstory broke, that awkward pas de deux was immediately dubbed by many as Oscar’s ultimate “Kanye moment.”

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

17. Jennifer Lawrence, Best Actress (2013)

Watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy. No sooner had Lawrence’s name been called as the winner for Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook than the young starlet started walking up to the stage—and tripped going up the stairs. (Watch as Hugh Jackman rushes up to help her. So chivalrous, Hugh!) “You’re just standing because you feel really bad that I fell,” she said, in reference to the standing-o she received. “That’s really embarrassing, but thank you. This. Is. Nuts!” Disaster diffused: We’d have thought no one could have recovered from something as potentially mortifying as almost landing flat on his or her face in front of millions of viewers. We had obviously never met J-Law.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

16. Sidney Poitier, Honorary Award (2002)

2002 provided a landmark Oscar ceremony: It was the first time two African-Americans both took home the year’s top acting prizes (and the only time an African-American woman has nabbed the Best Actress statuette. Way to go, Halle Berry!). It was also, appropriately enough, the same year that the Academy decided to give pioneering black actor Sidney Poitier an honorary award, and it was impossible not to be stirred by the man’s thanks. Much like Best Actor winner Denzel Washington tipping his hat to the venerable icon later on in the evening, Poitier paid homage to the directors and fellow craftsmen who broke down barriers in the industry so that he might break ground. He dedicated the moment to all of the “others who have had a hand in altering the odds, for me and for others.” An entire era of struggle and redemption was channeled in a single five-minute speech.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

15. Bob Dylan, Best Original Song (2000)

It was exciting enough to see the former Robert Zimmerman performing his nominated song from Wonder Boys, “Things Have Changed,” for the ceremony—if not live in the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium, then via satellite from a concert in Sydney, Australia. It was even better to see the living legend win the Oscar for the tune a mere two minutes after playing it for millions of viewers. Accepting the honor as a floating jumbo-screen head, Dylan uncharacteristically seemed flustered, and for younger viewers, the older gentleman wishing everyone “peace, tranquility, and good will” might have been just another rogue riverboat gambler at a loss for words. For fans, however, it was great to see an artist still making vital music honored decades into an incredible career. 

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

14. Joe Pesci, Best Supporting Actor (1990)

When you think of Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s epic, definitive movie on modern wiseguys, you think of a man who uses torrents of profane verbiage to intimidate. (That, and a penchant for impromptu beatdowns and shootings and stabbings and….) So after Pesci walked up on stage after winning the Best Supporting Actor award for the film’s resident alpha psycho Tommy DeVito, you could not be blamed for expecting a long, drawn-out litany that might potentially require much bleeping. Instead, the actor said: “It was my privilege, thank you.” That’s it. That was the entirety of his acceptance speech. It remains the single shortest speech delivered by any winner to date.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

13. Three 6 Mafia, Best Original Song (2005)

It’s a scientifically proven fact that it is, indeed, hard out there for a pimp. It’s not that hard for a Memphis, Tennessee, rap trio to win an Oscar, however; you just get one of your songs in an independent movie that takes Sundance by storm and then goes on to become a hit. (Piece of cake!) No sooner had the Three-6 Mafia performed their memorable ditty from Hustle & Flow at the Oscars telecast than Queen Latifah was calling them to the podium to accept the coveted tiny bald guy. Boisterous does not begin to describe their speech, in which both God and producer Gil Cates get some Southern-hospitality shout-outs. “That’s how you accept an Oscar,” said host Jon Stewart. Hip-hop crashed the Oscars—and hip-hop walked away a winner.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

12. Angelina Jolie, Best Supporting Actress (1999)

“I love my brother so much right now!” Okay, so it’s admittedly not the most common way of beginning an acceptance speech, but then again, Angelina Jolie was not considered the most common of stars circa 1999. Still in her bloodletting-and-seemingly-batshit-crazy phase, a Gothed-out Jolie took to the stage and kicked off her acceptance speech with that declaration of sibling amore. What made that opening salvo feel truly odd, however, was that Jolie and her brother James Haven had locked lips on the red carpet earlier in a way that some folks felt was a little, um, overly passionate. By the time she reiterated her fondness for her family member at the end of her speech, you could feel the audience’s discomfort coming through the screen.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

11. Blake Edwards, Honorary Award (2004)

If you’ve ever belly-laughed over Inspector Clouseau wreaking havoc or Dudley Moore tumbling down a hill in 10, then you know filmmaker Blake Edwards has a gift for staging first-rate slapstick. So when the octogenarian was set to receive an honorary Oscar, he decided to turn his moment to shine into a physical-comedy set piece. Introduced by Jim Carrey, Edwards zips out from the wings on a motorized wheelchair—only to speed across the stage, grab the Oscar from Carrey’s hand and crash through a wall on the other side. His comic timing is, per usual, absolutely perfect. 

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

10. Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, Best Costume Design (1994)

Costume designers on the verge of becoming Oscar winners had better look sharp (it’s technically their job!), and Aussie Lizzy Gardiner did not disappoint. Accepting the award with her colleague Tim Chappel, she waltzed up to the stage wearing a dress made of expired gold American Express cards—an appropriate piece of offbeat couture, considering she’d just won for designing the outré outfits for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. She claimed that she’d originally intended it use it for the film; whatever her intentions, fashion pundits still declare that it’s one of the worst Oscar dresses of all time. As for American Express, they ended up buying it for an undisclosed price. 

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

9. Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, Best Original Screenplay (1995)

Having taken the world by storm with his second film Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino was already riding high when his name was called, alongside his writing partner Roger Avary, for the Best Original Screenplay award. The motormouthed man of the cultural moment jokingly threatened to let loose with a year’s worth of verbiage, but it was Avary who stole the show. After thanking his wife, Avary nervously said “I really have to take a pee right now.”  It was the least coolest thing he could have said—thus making it the most coolest acceptance speech sign-off of the night.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

8. Martin Scorsese, Best Director (2006)

Call it a film-brat mitzvah: There’s George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg on stage, getting ready to present the Best Director award. And who should it go to but their fellow ’70s New American Cinema partner in crime, Martin Scorsese. For many film lovers, the best American filmmaker working today was long overdue for a gold dude, but that didn’t stop Scorsese from asking if his old friends could “double-check the envelope?” He then gave a genuinely grateful speech, his mouth moving a mile-a-minute and his heart thumping noticeably on his sleeve. “People have been wishing this for me for ages,” the director of The Departed said, and a lot of people out there, it felt like, for once, deserve actually did have to something to do with it.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

7. Elia Kazan, Honorary Oscar (1999)

The brouhaha had started as soon as the announcement was made that legendary director Elia Kazan would be receiving an honorary Oscar: You’re going to give an award to the rat who sold out folks to the House of Un-American Activities Committee back in 1952? Old wounds had not entirely healed for some when Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese welcomed Kazan out for his Oscar, and the tension in the room was palpable. Some, like Warren Beatty and Meryl Streep, stood and applauded; others, such as Nick Nolte and Ed Harris, sat in stony silence. “I think I can just slip away,” Kazan said at the end of his brief address, but for many in that room, the man’s legacy—the good and the bad—was still way too divisive to let that happen entirely. 

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

6. Tom Hanks, Best Actor (1993)

Regardless of whether you thought Tom Hanks’s portrayal of a man dying of AIDS in Philadelphia was groundbreaking or simply grotesque (passionate arguments have been made for both sides), it’s hard to deny that Hanks’s speech wasn’t delivered straight from his heart—or that it didn’t come with a few surprises. During his speech, Hanks namechecked two men who he declares are some of the finest “gay Americans” he knows. The thing was, one of those men, retired drama teacher Rawley Farnsworth, had never publicly admitted to being gay; Hanks had essentially outed him in front of millions of people. (In all fairness, Hanks had asked the elderly man’s permission to mention him in the speech if he won.) To say Farnsworth’s life changed overnight would not be an understatement. 

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

5. Adrian Brody, Best Actor (2002)

Memo to comely actresses who may be presenting an award to Adrian Brody: You may want to prep with some chapstick. Having won the Best Actor Oscar for playing an emaciated musician in The Pianist, Brody was beside himself with joy. He also found himself besides presenter Halle Berry who he then proceeded to scoop into his arms and lay a long, luxurious kiss upon her lips. Berry seemed a surprised, though not unpleasantly so, by the unexpected PDA; we can’t speak for how her significant other at the time felt, of course. When Brody came back next year to present the Best Actress Oscar, he riffed on the moment by spraying some Binaca into his mouth before announcing the winner. History, however, did not repeat itself.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

4. Michael Moore, Best Documentary (2002)

It wasn’t like Michael Moore hadn’t been critical of President George W. Bush prior to Bowling for Columbine winning the Best Documentary Oscar. But it’s safe to say he take his anti-Bush to a whole other level when he walked up to the microphone that evening. After mentioning that he’d brought his fellow nonfiction-filmmaking nominees up on stage with him in a show of solidarity, Moore then went on to take the “fictitious” commander-in-chief to task for waging a “fictitious” war after being brought to office via a “fictitious” election. The boos become near-deafening by the end, but not so loud that you can’t hear the documentarian yell “Shame on you, Mr. Bush!” He soon found himself labeled as the conservative right’s public enemy no. 1. Moore’s next project: Fahrenheit 9/11.

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

3. Roberto Benigni, Best Foreign-Language Film (1997)

The Italian writer/director/star would have a good night at the Oscars, winning two awards, including Best Actor, for his Holocaust-themed tragicomedy Life Is Beautiful. It’s his speech for his first win of the night, however, that everyone really remembers. When Sophia Loren announces that Benigni’s movie has won the Best Foreign-Language Film award, the manic comedian then proceeds to walk across the tops of the seats—as well as the people sitting in those seats—to get to the podium. Once he gets to the step, he literally hops up them and into Loren’s arms, saying he wants to “dive in this ocean of generosity.” Molto crazy, Roberto! Molto crazy. 

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

2. Cuba Gooding Jr., Best Supporting Actor (1996)

It’s the yardstick for which all other Oscar freakouts are measured: Overwhelmed from the get-go (who wouldn’t be?) after taking the stage to collect his statue for Jerry Maguire, Gooding Jr. began to thank his wife, God and his costar Tom Cruise, in that order. But once the orchestra kicked in with it’s time-to-move-it-along music, the actor went into overdrive, yelling out names of colleagues and family before screaming “I love you! I love you! I love you!!!” As people start to applaud louder, Gooding Jr. punctuates it with an ecstatic leap into the air and a fist-pump. Show us the uncontrollable displays of emotion, Cuba!

25 Most Unforgettable Oscar Speeches of the Past 25 Years

1. Jack Palance, Best Supporting Actor (1992)

“Billy Crystal…I crap bigger than him!” That’s the first thing out of Jack Palance’s mouth when he walked out to bask in the glory of his Oscar win for City Slickers; apparently, he was still in character, playing the tough guy who turned suburban dads into rough-and-ready cowpokes. But anybody doubting the virility or machismo of the 73-year-old actor were about to get truly schooled: Complaining that producers still wanted to go for the younger leading men when it came to casting, Palance proceeded to drop down on the stage and started doing one-handed push-ups. The audience loses it, and just when you thought it couldn’t get any more outrageous, the actor then says he can do two-handed push-ups all night “and it doesn’t make any difference whether she’s there are not! And it’s helluva lot less expensive!” Host Billy Crystal milked the joke for the rest of night and enlisted Palance to pull him out on a float when he MCed the Oscars next year. You simply can’t go wrong with a salty old man.

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